A mixed bag of tricks
Affirmative action yields no positive results unless an effort is made to facilitate intermingling among different groups
Affirmative action is perhaps one of the strongest and most controversial measures taken by the government to fight discrimination and increase representation of minority groups in education and the workplace. It is meant to reduce disparity in education and employment opportunities between minorities and whites. One of the most well-known applications of affirmative action is during the college admissions process. Multiple universities have adopted affirmative action policies to increase diversity in their student populations. But, diversity does not hold much significance if it is only a numbers game; that is, if it merely allows a minority population to achieve diversity at a basic, statistical level. Having a diverse student body is useless unless there are steps taken to more effectively bring people together.
The motivation behind affirmative action is noble, but actual implementation of affirmative action is problematic. It is true that affirmative action brings minority students to a university, but after that, it does not do anything to encourage students to interact with each other. But it is this interaction which is necessary to promote diversity and create an inclusive, open atmosphere at any university. According to Jeffrey Milem, a professor at the University of Maryland, "The whole discussion used to be framed around numbers. Now it's about what kind of educational environment is in place to allow these diverse people to learn from one another." For example, there might be all types of minority students at a university, but if those minority students clump together with people of similar backgrounds then there is minimal opportunity to learn about different minorities. After all, what point is there in having a diverse student body if people are still divided once they get to school?
To really benefit from having a wide array of minorities, there has to be mingling among the various kinds of people at a university. A study conducted at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago revealed that students who form friendships with people of other races and/or have interaction with them during their first year of college are more likely to be open-minded in their perception and beliefs about race.
Diversity is significant when students can learn about minority cultures and groups. A report from the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Professors claims that having actual situations like interaction in a classroom between students of different ethnic backgrounds is important in breaking down stereotypes and encouraging students to be more open-minded. Furthermore, open-minded students will become open-minded adults who end up foraying into their respective fields with greater understanding and tolerance. In a world where people are globally linked, having an open mind and being able to interact with people of all backgrounds are crucial to societal and political reform.
To effectively promote diversity, the University and the student body must take action and create programs where students can have the choice to interact with others frequently enough to really embrace diversity. There must be steps taken to create an inclusive atmosphere where students do not feel forced to clump with people of similar backgrounds. One of the approaches to increasing the interactions between students is offering more courses which would attract students across various ethnic and academic backgrounds. For example, instead of offering a class on a specific country, broadening the area covered to an entire region may be an effective way of encouraging students of different interests to take the class - this will increase the interaction between different people.
Moreover, when forming contracted independent organizations, having more generalized groups such as religion clubs or foreign film organizations is an effective way of attracting people of different backgrounds without putting the focus on one minority specifically. A common interest will unite people and allow them to interact and learn about each other. At the University, we have the International Residential College (IRC) which successfully brings together all kinds of people under a larger niche. The IRC has many programs throughout the week and the year which promote interaction among the people living there. It is an interesting way to meet many people from all over the world.
Nevertheless, the most important part of this entire approach to creating diversity is that it must be done informally. Explicitly mandating or saying that the point of a club or class is to promote diversity often deters students. Rather, an informal approach which is broad enough to attract students of different backgrounds could be more effective in increasing their interaction.
Affirmative action is insufficient to carry out diversity to the extent necessary to reduce discrimination. It is the job of the University and the student body to focus not on a numbers game, but rather on actually creating a more integrated community, where we have a better understanding of other cultures and differences and embrace them. Once we accomplish that, then universities may truly become diverse communities.
Fariha Kabir's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.